Of all the phrases you will hear during the telecast of Wednesday night’s World Series Game 2, the one that will come up the most is “This is a must-win game for the Astros.” This is to be somewhat understood. On Tuesday, the Astros did one of the most damaging things you can do in the World Series: They lost Game 1 at home.
It has been 10 years since a team lost Game 1 at home and went on to win the World Series: The Yankees did it in 2009, falling 6-1 to the Phillies but going on to win the Series in six games. But of course, the Yanks rebounded to win Game 2, thus not falling into a 2-0 canyon. (They won Games 3 and 4 as well.) The Astros supposedly must win Game 2, because teams that have lost the first two games of a seven-game series at home (including LCS) have come back to win series on just three of 25 occasions.
Here are the three teams to do it, all in the World Series.
1985 Royals (beat Cardinals in 7)
1986 Mets (beat Red Sox in 7)
1996 Yankees (beat Braves in 6)
In fact, teams that lose the first two games at home are on a 10-series losing streak. It has been since those 1996 Yankees lost the first two games of their World Series with the Braves in The Bronx but rebounded to win the next four that a team has crawled out of such a deep hole. In fact, in those last 10 series, only one team (the 1998 Braves against the Padres in the National League Championship Series) lost the first two games at home and even got the series back to their home stadium by pushing it to a Game 6. Six of those 10 series have ended in a sweep. So recent history says that if you lose the first two at home, you’re apparently toast. This is why you will hear this all night tonight.
But this still seems like an odd way to look at a baseball series. It is strange to consider 10 baseball teams from the past, not just 10 different teams but 10 different eras entirely, as more vital and pertinent information than the baseball team that is currently playing right in front of us. Of those 10 last teams who have lost the first two games of their series at home and then not recovered, only one has even the slightest relevance to this series: The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, who just lost their first two games in the NLCS to these very Washington Nationals and then immediately commenced rolling over in the final two games at Nationals Park. And suffice it to say: The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals are not the 2019 Houston Astros.
Basically, in Game 1, every single thing the Astros could have possibly feared would go wrong went wrong. Alex Bregman went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Their Nos. 2-6 hitters went a combined 5-for-23. George Springer didn’t sprint out of the box on what he thought was a homer and therefore inspired all sorts of grumbling, grouchy “traditionalist” grousings that get a little more tired every time you hear them. (I don’t think he was making it to third anyway.) Gerrit Cole -- Gerrit Cole! -- gave up five runs for the first time in five months. All these things, not to mention an off-field controversy prior to Game 1.
And they still almost won! The Nationals had to throw everything they had at the Astros in Game 1, using presumed Game 3 starter Patrick Corbin for an inning in relief and forcing their only reliable relievers in Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle to pitch more than an inning apiece. The Nats pulled out every possible stop -- you know you’re just barely hanging onto a lead when you start counting outs in the sixth inning -- just to make it through Game 1, and they still just barely made it. And that’s with the black swan event of a bad Cole start happening.
Perhaps the Nationals are able to do that again in Game 2. Maybe they can knock around American League Cy Young Award co-favorite Justin Verlander like they were able to knock around the other co-favorite Cole, and maybe they can stitch enough outs together with their patchwork bullpen to sneak out Game 2 the way they sneaked out Game 1. It is unlikely that will happen. But it could.
That shouldn’t be any reason to write off the Astros moving forward, which means Game 2 is anything but a “must-win.” Before this series, MLB.com asked 48 experts who they thought would win. Thirty-seven of them picked Houston. The Astros were overwhelming favorites heading into this series, and for good reason. The gap between the Astros (107 wins) and Nationals (93 wins) this season was roughly the same as the gap between the Nats and Rangers (78 wins), so the idea that this series would be somehow over if they lose Game 2 is ludicrous. Houston is going to be the favorite in every game of this series moving forward. That doesn’t mean the Astros are definitely going to win every game. But it sure means they’re more than capable of winning four of the following five if things go wrong again tonight.
And, frankly, if there is a team that knows a thing or two about coming back in a World Series, it’s these Astros. Let’s not forget that in 2017 -- with much of the same roster -- they lost Game 1 to the Dodgers and were down 3-2 in the ninth of Game 2 with Kenley Jansen on the mound for Los Angeles. Houston came back to win in 11 innings and then clinched the franchise’s first World Series title in seven games.
They’re probably going to win Game 2; they are a historically good team, after all. But if they don’t, this is still far from over. Don’t call it a must-win. It isn’t.